“Are you a human being or a chatbot?” “We are a chat agent”

This was an actual chat conversation snippet between me and a customer service .. entity! Did I just interact with chatbot or a human being who was constrained to following a strict script? Was I stupid enough that I failed a Turing test? I have so many questions! Maybe you, dear reader, can figure this one out?

In today’s era of large faceless organizations, it is becoming exceedingly rare to encounter customer service agents who can (or, are permitted to?) exhibit empathy, understanding, and creative problem solving. At the same time customer service agents, either chatbots or humans, seem to be dumbed down into following some predefined scripts. Consequently, attempts to seek customer service for atypical problems not foreseen by the script creators turns into a game of “hacking the script” .. guessing the right prompts and words to steer through the opaque list of actions, decisions, and possibilities built into the script, until an acceptable result is obtained.

Essentially, an interaction with customer service agents turns into an exercise akin to prompt engineering.

Part 1: Turkish Airlines

I frequently take long intercontinental flights (> 16 hours) paired with shorter flights (< 3 hours) during the same journey. Sometimes the flight timings are changed by the airlines after the tickets are purchased. This usually results in an email saying something like, “Your flight has changed. The details of the changes are [as follows]. Please confirm that the changes are acceptable [by doing X], alternatively change your booking [by doing Y].” This is fairly standard/routine.

Recently, Turking Airlines sent me a similar email. The change was to the timing of a long intercontinental flight. There was no change to the departure time, but the arrival at the destination would be one hour early. I was asked to confirm that this change is acceptable (which it was). However, ridiculous as it sounds, it turns out there was no way to inform the airlines that the change was acceptable to me, despite talking with an undeniably human customer service agent.

First, I went to the Turkish Airlines website and retrieved my reservation. Usually, there’s a button saying, “Confirm change” or similar, which I click and the matter is closed. This time around, there was no such button. Instead, there was a message that my flight was cancelled due to operational reasons and I could either change my flight or request a refund. Strange! So I called their customer service number.

  • The human customer service number asked for various details to confirm my identity then said, “I can see that your reserved flight has changed. I am so sorry for the inconvenience. You can rebook to a different flight…”
  • I interrupted him, “Hang on! The change is just that the flight lands an hour early. That’s totally fine with me. I am okay with the change. Can you place my acknowledgement and consent of the change into your system?”
  • He paused, took another look, and confirmed that indeed, the only change was that the flight landed an hour earlier than originally stated.
  • Then he said, “I cannot put in your acknowledgement. You must do it through your travel agent, because that is how you booked the ticket.”

At this point, we had established that I am indeed the traveler and the person who had booked and paid for the ticket. Yet, the customer service agent was unable to confirm a simple change on my behalf.

I asked him whether it’d be fine if I simply did not engage with the airline any further and just showed up for my flight. He told me, “No, you must either accept or reject the change, else you will not be allowed to board the flight. You much indicate acceptance/rejection via your travel agent.”

At this point, I considered saying, “My travel agent is dead. His business has closed down. How are we going to sort out this perfectly simple issue? I am okay with the proposed change to my flight.” Alternatively, I could have asked to escalate to a supervisor, I guess. But I was still in a pleasant, if incredulous, state of mind and told him that I’d contact my travel agent.

Part 2: Expedia

The “travel agent” through whom I’d booked the ticket was Expedia. I assumed that all it’d take is clicking a button on their site or a call to their customer service folks. Alas, there was no way tell Turkish Airlines via Expedia that I’m perfectly fine if my flight departs as intended but arrives an hour earlier to my destination.

Expedia has no telephone customer service at all. At least, none that I could find. The only option is to open up a chat with a “Virtual agent”. With a sense of dread, I opened the chat window. What happened next mystified even a cynical old codger like me.

The full transcript of the conversation, along with my thoughts at each step, is presented in the appendix below. The summary is:

  • The “Virtual agent” transferred me to a 2nd level, purportedly “human” agent? (To be clear, it is MY assumption that I was transferred to a human agent)
  • This 2nd level level agent ignored my problem description. Instead, he (it?) latched on to a keyword (“flight change”) and seemingly switched to a different script.
  • I was unable to communicate a simple request.
  • I directly asked, “Are you a human being or are you a chatbot?” and was told, “We are a customer service agent.”
  • Eventually, I gave up and watched my tickets get re-issued (cancelled and rebooked?) on the exact same flights as I’d originally booked.

Some points to ponder:

  • Was Mikee a human or a bot?
    • He had strangely quick canned responses in perfect English, yet he was unable to grasp the straightforward issue I described.
    • He made weird grammatical and spelling errors on other responses. Maybe he was just a non-native speaker.
  • Did Mikee (even try to) understand what I was saying?
    • Perhaps he did not. Maybe my description was confusing (I don’t think so!)
    • Perhaps he did. But maybe he had to stick to a script, else he would lose his job?

Appendix: Transcript of actual chat conversation

Below is the actual transcript. It is a bunch of screenshots stacked together, since Expedia does not allow dowloading the transcript for my records.

Transcript part 1 Transcript part 2